Real Talk

Trigger Warnings for rape culture.

Let’s talk about rape culture!

Now that we’ve weeded out everyone who won’t listen anyway, let’s get real.

Some people get defensive when you say “rape culture”. There are lots of reasons for that almost exclusively rooted in denial, but I have noticed that those people deliberately misunderstand the term. They think we’re only talking about rape. LOL. The rest of us understand we’re talking about a culture that results in rape. But “Conditioning Girl Children to Believe Their Bodies Don’t Belong to Them Culture” doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it?

I’m going to start this by telling you a truth. I’ve never been raped.

Age 5. I decide to cut my morning routine short and skip wearing underwear under my polka dotted circle skirt. Someone in my family notices and next thing I know, I’m “playfully” hauled over my step-father’s shoulder while everyone in the house has a turn at pinching my bare bottom to make fun of me. My face is hot with shame and tears and I feel sick inside, while the adults around me probably feel like it’s a “fun” and “joking” way to teach me a lesson about how to dress.  And to be fair, it worked. To this day, I feel sick if I don’t wear underwear under my clothing. Years later I was sleeping with a man who insisted I at least “try” to sleep naked because it was “so much better.” I woke every hour with panic attacks until I put clothes back on. He never really understood, but he never asked me to sleep naked again. I called it a win.

Preschool. My birthday is in November so I’m half a year ahead of everyone else and bigger. The hyperactive little boy with socialization problems jumps on my back while I’m crouched over on the playground. I stand abruptly, throwing him off, and he lands in the monkey bars, earning a few bruises and wailing like I beat him with a tire iron. I’m forced to stand with my nose in the corner for hurting him. My mother is coming to volunteer at the school that day and I stand rigid with fear that she’ll see I got into trouble. It crosses my mind that this is an injustice, but not that I should try to explain myself.

First Grade. Our classroom is divided into play stations and I am at the Doctor station with a group of children. They want me to be the patient. I say no, but they insist by holding me down while they “examine” me. There’s a scream locked inside my chest that I can’t quite get out. I feel paralyzed as I look past their looming little faces at my teacher, staring at me impassively while I squirm and cry.  I never truly trust an adult with my physical safety after that.

Age 6 through 9. I want to spend time with my parents on their big bed on Saturday mornings while they drink coffee and read the newspaper. I’d just been made a big sister, we’re constantly moving and I’m a lonely kid. But the price is I have to submit to tickling that extends long past the point where I say, “Stop.” But I’m laughing, so I don’t really mean it, right? All in good fun. Nobody gets hurt. Except 30 years later when I tried to explain to my then-husband why I loathed being tickled and finally blurted out, “Because it’s like being raped only you’re forced to laugh!” He thought I was accusing him of rape. It’s unfair to rape victims and I hated using that analogy, but he literally could NOT understand why I’d hate to laugh. I don’t hate to laugh, but I hate being tickled. He never really made the connection, but his feelings were hurt so badly he never tried to tickle me again. I called it a win.

Third grade. Walking home from school and the cool boy who lives down the street follows me. I’ve wanted to be his friend for a long time, but he never notices me. He wants to tell me something. I slow down to let him catch up, he steps too close. I back away but he has to tell me a “secret”. We were alone on a suburban street, but I so desperately want him to like me. He leans in, grabs my face and plants a painful kiss on my mouth. I jerk away, run home and never tell anyone, strangely shamed. Just like I never told anyone when my best friend’s older brother jumped on top of me at a sleep over (where I screamed and promptly threw him off). I learned not to want the cool, older boys’ friendship anymore, though.

Fifth grade. Puberty hits me hard. I have the largest breasts in my class. I don’t wear the only bra, but I’m certainly the target of getting it snapped most. My parents are in the middle of a divorce. Grown men cat-call me regularly on my walk home from school. Everyone tells me I’m pretty, and at the same time makes fun of what I wear if it hugs my new curves too tightly. I’m wound tighter than an eight-day clock. At recess, the last boy plucks my bra strap. I swing around to confront him, but my subconscious has other ideas and a clenched fist I don’t realize is at the end of my arm connects with his ear. Funnily enough, toxic masculinity protected me that day as he didn’t want to admit to getting hit by a girl, and never told on me.

Middle school. Mom goes to night school. I’m getting ready for bed when my mother comes home, my nightshirt halfway over my body. She begins accusing me of fooling around with a boy. I’m confused. She says she saw a boy running from the direction of our apartment when she pulled up, and here I am half naked. Don’t lie, she says. I have to defend my innocence. That same year she threatens to throw me out “on my ass” if I ever come home pregnant. She’s scared. She cries and calls my father when I want to wear a fringed crop top to a party and asks him to explain rape to me. I’m 14.

Age 15. I decide sexuality is a weapon. I’m determined to never let it cut me again. I begin to cut others, instead. I’m called a “tease”, a “slut”, a “whore”. “That’s right,” I respond smugly. Because my body has never belonged to me until now, and I’ll do whatever the fuck I want with it. I let boys who never slept with me say they did and the men I did sleep with I never named. I get called “bitch” a lot.

At 17 I have an abortion. I’m proud of myself because the boy doesn’t want me and I don’t want to be pregnant. He wants me later, though. But when I decide I don’t want him, he accuses me of killing his baby. His baby in my body that he didn’t want. He wants to shame me. I dump him almost immediately.

I was never raped. But I was conditioned to live like rape is my birthright, a right of passage that I can only put off for so long because my body was never truly mine.

That is rape culture.

I’m 42. I’m long past my sell-by date for sexuality in my “culture”, the rape culture that wanted to take my body from me before I understood who I was. My sexuality is no longer a weapon for anyone. All around me, famous men are toppling from pedestals built on false ownership of women’s bodies. And my lumpy, sagging, birth-scarred, worn-out, tattooed, pierced and independent body laughs and laughs.

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What sound does a Scarlet Virago make? Snarky ones.

 

My daughter graduated high school in 2015, college earlier this year. Her peers that attend 4 year colleges are entering their junior year and are now, on average, $30,000 in debt. That number will continue to increase at the same rate or faster over the next two years. My daughter has zero debt and supports herself with her first entry level position.
Do I sound a little snarky? Yes, yes I do. I received a LOT of criticism for encouraging her to obtain a professional certificate over a bachelor’s degree. A LOT. And it takes nothing away from those kids getting their bachelor’s to point out that she is already living and working in the adult world, accumulating skills for her next goal and beholden to NO loan holders. She can start building her credit from 0, rather than -30,000.
Are there kids out there trying to accomplish their dreams? Absolutely, and I wish them the best fortune possible. Are they, along with their less ambitious but no less educated peers, going to be in fierce competition for a level of employment that can’t accommodate them all? Also yes. Are a ridiculous number of them going to be working two or three entry-level jobs (that require no degree) at the same time just so they can make payments on their student loans? Also yes.
I am so sick of this pervasive and pernicious idea that dreams are ALL that matter. That one’s personal happiness rests entirely on the idea that they ONLY do what they love. I love to eat, and sleep under a roof. And not spend my days stressing about my credit score and how I’m going to pay for an emergency medical expense. There is more than one way to accomplish one’s dreams, and the idea that mortgaging your soul to a bank, or risking a basic standard of living to achieve them is… well, it’s just foolish and naive and downright harmful in some instances.
Not to mention the fact that my life fell apart in such a way that I would not have been able to help my kid in any way if she’d needed it during or after her last two years at college. And given the number of college graduates living at home, she definitely would have needed it. At this point, she’s the one helping me, who doesn’t have a choice but to incur student debt to achieve the same basic level of education that she was able to get for free, because we utilized the resources available to us at the right time.
So yeah, I’m feeling a bit snarky. And ridiculously proud.

I set myself a challenge.

I’ve been thinking about how my definition of difficult has changed.

I used to do difficult things because I felt I had no choice. In some instances I didn’t, and in others, I took one difficult choice because I was scared of the other. If there is a gift to be found in the last two years, it’s learning to recognize that.

Despite my effort and hard work, it’s looking more and more likely I won’t be accepted into the academic program I applied to.  I honestly believe it’s not me – I followed the application instructions scrupulously and my grades are exemplary. But it’s a highly competitive program and there are, on average, three times as many applicants every year as places. I set myself a very strict financial timeline – I don’t know why I did that. Part of it was just the old habit of setting impossibly high standards for myself, and believing if I couldn’t meet them then I was obviously not worthy of the reward. Which is so, so conceited of me. As though I’m in complete control of all the variables and I’m either perfect or worthless – nothing in between. Old voices, I guess. The other part was just being ignorant of how this process can play out. I’ve never been a divorcee in my 40s with little education and no innate talent before.

But a brief survey on Facebook of potential career paths that would fit into my timeline proved to me that my first choice is actually my dream, inasmuch as I can be said to have a realistic one. I mean, obviously my dream is to hitch a small camper to my car, grab my dogs and my camera and take off to parts unknown. Perhaps then, it would be better to say that my “realistic dream” is really my goal, and I just so happened to choose one that is difficult to obtain.

I’m unused to assessing what is difficult but achievable, and what is impractical to the point of impossible. (See above statement about conceit and inexperience.) But part of the process of reordering my life is to be honest with myself about my ranking. I’m not stellar or exemplary at anything, but I am good. Certainly I’m good enough for the path I’ve chosen. And if the first pass doesn’t yield results, doesn’t my devotion to myself, my future, deserve another try?

So maybe this is my new difficult. Trying again. All-or-nothing thinking has been a part of my life since infancy. Both nature and nurture conspired against me in that department. And sadly, my life up to this point always felt like it was balanced on a knife’s edge of precariousness, with no room for second chances. In all honesty, sometimes it really was. Single parenthood leaves little room for mistakes, and the one time I entered into a relationship with no back door was the one time I really needed it. But here I am now, with no one but myself to answer to and my life is less on a knife’s edge and more on a curb. A fall off a curb at my age could hurt me for a long time, but it won’t slice me and everything I love to ribbons.

Saying “a dream deferred” is so pretentious, but “a goal delayed” feels too mundane for the risk I’m taking. I’m old enough to recognize what a slog the year of delay will feel like – I know there’s no exciting plot twist waiting for me there. But that’s not the difficult part. The difficult part is keeping my chin up, remembering that I am good enough, and not to let a lifetime of combined conceit and worthlessness throw me off my path. It’s a different kind of difficult.

Time Capsules

My 20s were a crash course in adulting. Motherhood, failed relationships, financial bungling – the works. I came out of them with a new sense of humility.

My 30s were all about tough lessons in partnership, individuality, and knowing myself better. I came out of them heartbroken, but stronger than ever.

My 40s appear to be about laying down burdens that I didn’t realize I was carrying, and applying the lessons of my 20s and 30s to a new beginning. I have no idea how I’ll come out of them, but I’m not intimidated by the possibilities.

Sorrows and Deep Sighs

The world is bona fide mess.

Our president has tacitly threatened nuclear war on the one other country in the world with a leader stupid enough to retaliate. The institution of police have openly embraced their role as blue terrorists in our communities. A series of catastrophic hurricanes is steadily destroying lives and nations in the Caribbean. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are struggling to survive.

My tiny, insignificant corner of personal misery isn’t much by comparison, but it’s everything when my own mind is no refuge from the wretchedness. The only solution I can think of is to put my misery to bed.

The end of my marriage came without my consent, or input of any kind, really. My husband simply left – emotionally and verbally if not physically. No matter how I begged for communication, he simply stopped talking or acknowledging my role as his spouse in any way. All of my anger, all my despair, centered… no, centers, to be fair, around the loss of my agency. To this day, I seethe with frustration over never being able to confront our problems head on.

But that was his entire goal.

If he never accused me of failing him, then I couldn’t accuse him back. He wanted a do-over without consequences. Because to him, ignoring our 12 years together means they didn’t happen the way they really happened, and without my input to contradict, he can remember them any way he likes. My real failings become imagined in whatever way suits his narrative. My real quirks become monstrous or nonexistent as fits the story he wants to tell himself (and the next woman). My heartache, too.

While I have real regrets and real sorrow and real hurt, my worst pain comes from my erasure. There is nothing I can do to make myself relevant in his life again, for good or ill. I’ve long since let go of my love for him, but becoming invisible to the single person I trusted with every corner of my soul? That’s a betrayal I might never recover from. No matter what indictments I can throw his way (and there are plenty), the crux of my misery rests on the helplessness of being invisible.

And that’s on me. Because I knew he didn’t really see me. I knew it, and I chose to make excuses for it. When he insisted on portraying me in ways that were inconsistent with my perception of our relationship, I objected – in the beginning. But when those objections were met with “I’m just teasing”, I backed off. Because I didn’t want to perceive my role as humorless. I wish I had. I wish I had been perceived as humorless instead of whatever was in head. At least then there would have been a modicum of truth to it.

Instead, I dove into the dark spaces between what I knew was real and what he would acknowledge. There was peace in not having to talk, and I embraced it wholeheartedly. I was tired. I’d spent my entire life navigating emotions for people too damaged to do it on their own and I was just fucking tired. What he offered was freedom from that, and I accepted.

And that’s on me, too. I was tired, I was lonely, and I made a fatal mistake out of weakness.

It’s happened to better people than me, but strangely that doesn’t bring me much comfort.

My misery may be tiny and insignificant in the context of the world, but it’s also tiny and insignificant to the other person who might have shared it. I am a myth to the only other person in the world I wanted to be completely real with. I let go of him a long time ago, but it’s time to let go of the frustration surrounding my erasure. I will have to come to terms with the truth of my failings on my own, and maybe that’s as it should be. There was a saying in my house growing up – You’re the only one you have to look at in the mirror.

I’m the only one staring back. That’s enough.

Help is a Four Letter Word

It was almost a year ago that I shared a funny story with my therapist. I was trying to illustrate the inherent stubbornness of my nature. (Some would say willful obstinance and that’s certainly their prerogative. Ahem.) It’s a story from my childhood that I’ve shared and laughed at for over 30 years.

When I was eight, we moved neighborhoods but not school districts and it was the day for me to walk home by myself for the first time. Unfortunately for me, it was also “clean out your desk” day and back then they gave you a cheap garbage bag and a thumbs up while you stuffed 40 years worth of paper worksheets into 3 cents worth of perforated plastic bag. I set off confidently enough, but got turned around fairly quickly until I was well and truly lost. I wandered for a long time. Crying, trailing snot and a torn bag behind me, strewing old papers in a pathetic wake along suburban residential streets, I wandered in what was most likely circles, and given the length of my legs at that age not even big ones. It felt like hours and hours to my little girl mind, though in reality it probably wasn’t more than one hour, at most. But I was scared and worried and I kept on walking.

That’s the salient point in the story, as I’ve always told it. I kept walking. I didn’t knock on any doors to ask for help. I definitely didn’t sit down and wait for someone to find me. Oh no – I stubbornly snorted back my snot and kept going! Because even at eight years old I was an obstinate, willful thing! Ha ha, isn’t that funny?!

My therapist chuckled a little with me, but asked, all guileless and with genuine curiosity, “What would have happened if you had just sat down?”

And my brain’s gears came to a screeching halt while I stared at her, dumbfounded. No one had ever asked me that in 30 years and it definitely wasn’t part of my story. This is supposed to be the part where we all laugh at what a perversely dogged child I was, so I just looked blank while my brain struggled to change direction. Then my emotions caught up before my head did and I was choking on a flood of tears while I struggled to get the words past my closed throat. “I’d still be sitting there.”

It ate up 15 minutes of my therapy hour before I could breathe again. Before I could face the fact that at eight years old, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that no one was coming to save me. I knew that if I wanted to get home, it was up to me.

As it happens, my stepfather was out looking for me, and we eventually ran into each other and he took me home in our family car. But while I was relieved to be going home, I was also nervous about getting in trouble for getting lost in the first place. Because that’s my family’s legacy – self-sufficiency to the point of an eight year old fearing punishment over getting lost.

This was a family who loved me. My parents (and extended to aunts, uncles and grandparents, such as they were) loved me and wanted me to be happy. They absolutely wanted my safety and happiness above all else. But the execution was poor. They were lacking in tools, they had wrong information, and to a certain extent were just too fucking selfish to do the job of making me feel secure and protected. I honestly felt, at eight years old, that was my job.

I’m still unpacking the pain that one not-so-innocent question revealed in me, not least because those same people are still failing me.

I kept on feeling that way – through adolescence, teenage years, and well into the time when another human’s safety and happiness depended on me, I felt that I could only count on myself and had only myself to blame when it all went to shit. No one was coming to save me. Ever. I inherited my family’s selfishness completely. My world was entirely my own, only my own actions mattered, and all the blame belonged to me.

That’s a difficult life to lead. It’s even harder when you add in a confused, lonely man who thought he wanted to “rescue” me but really just wanted me to apply my control-freak ways to his life, too. Still trying to portion out the blame appropriately for that one.

I lived my entire life not understanding that there is supposed to be a certain amount of help and support when you ask for it. Is it any wonder I chose someone so spectacularly bad at giving it when I finally let myself ask? I still struggle with the concept! For children, it’s supposed to be unconditional. I missed the children’s boat. I know adults who are still trying to catch it and it makes me sad and a little impatient for them. That’s their journey and I try to remember it’s not helpful for me to judge it.

But it turns out there’s a boat for adults. There’s a life raft when you need it, a cruise liner, sometimes a private yacht. There are people who know how to say the right thing at the right time, whether it’s encouragement or a reality check or nothing at all. Sadly, I didn’t marry any of them. But today, I asked for help and a lot of people jumped in to offer it. They can’t go back for the lost eight year old with the torn bag of school papers, but they are here for me now.

I don’t subscribe to the “everything happens for a reason” bullshit line of reasoning. But I do think that our minds are built to make order in chaos, and to jigsaw the randomness of life and the universe into some sort of cohesive meaning. So I don’t think that my husband needed to be a lying coward who would rather burn our lives to the ground than admit he made a mistake, but since he was, I’ve been given the opportunity to learn about what constitutes help, when I deserve it, and who to ask for it. And that’s not a bad lesson to take.

Updates for Real Life

It occurs to me that my friends and family don’t really understand where my life is at right now. Even though I’m fairly regular about posting to facebook, I understand not everyone is as glued to that medium and might miss out on some pertinent details. This post is meant to rectify that, so if you don’t know me in real life, it won’t mean that much to you.

Ro and I (and all three dogs) have been moved in to a 900 sq. ft. duplex since mid-May. It’s tiny as hell, but allows all three of my dogs and is in a conveniently-situated part of town. It’s also affordable. These three items generally outweigh the numerous inconveniences, which I don’t want to complain about because my landlady is a good friend and went out of her way to make this place as accommodating as she could. I’m immensely grateful, and will learn to live with the things that are difficult.

I’m in college full time now. 10 credit hours over the summer, and 14 in the fall. It is utterly exhausting. My brain just hurts all the time now and every second I’m not studying or walking my dogs, I’m sleeping. This will get worse when I get accepted into the Physical Therapy Assistant program which starts in January. There wasn’t any other way to work out my school schedule – the “luck” of my ex-husband’s choices put me in a precarious position and I had to just do the best I could. That means working hard, which I’m no stranger to, but it’s a lot different at 41 than it was at 21.

Speaking of exes, I expect my divorce to be finalized within the next week or so. It was a drawn out, expensive process with a few arguments, but ultimately I got what I asked for, which was a temporary, modest living stipend until I finish school. I also kept my car and my IRA, and the dogs.

Which brings me to my next point: modest living. I’m back in a financial position I haven’t seen in over 14 years, which is scary-poor. Not nearly-homeless poor, thank goodness, but that is only because my daughter is gainfully employed and can pay the rent and utilities. But because I had to pay for some of my school out of pocket, which ate up the last of my savings, I’m now in “Oh Zeus please don’t let anything bad happen to me, my dogs, or my car or I am up shit creek” poor. I am uninsured, medically, and I don’t qualify for state aid by virtue of living in the state of Missouri (yay red state conservatism that doesn’t give a fuck if you die!). Every cent I have goes toward living expenses, which even shared are not negligible, and I’m literally holding my breath that nothing unexpected happens. Which is usually a strong indicator that it will.

I have no time, no money, and generally no patience. I am stressed out most of the time, living on a razor’s edge of catastrophe, but at least I’m too tired to freak out about it very often.

Somebody recently said how proud they were that I was “living my dream”. They meant pursuing my education, and I’m grateful for the sentiment in that respect, but this was most definitely not my dream. My dream went up in flames with my marriage and I haven’t had the energy or optimism to form a new one. I’m living my survival right now, and that’s all.

If you know me in real life, please don’t tease me about any of the above. My sense of humor has taken a scarily long hike and anything that resembles “blue skying” from you is going to be interpreted as willful ignorance about the reality of my situation. If you literally have no idea (and if you haven’t seen me face to face in the last 4 months, you don’t), kindly keep your “advice”, “cheering up”, or any other form of platitudes to yourself.

I’m in survival mode, and that leaves nothing left over at the end of the day for nonsense.